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Outdoor gear sales dropped in 2023, leaving mountain retailers struggling with high rents, high taxes and too-few workers

Overall sales of gear and apparel dropped 3% last year. Independent stores were hit much harder as core outdoor consumers slowed their spending
Mountain Outfitters owners Cindy Reese and Doug Bittinger interact with regulars during the store closing sale Aug. 17 in Breckenridge. The local favorite outdoor gear store because of post-pandemic challenges in the mountain town’s high cost of living. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun file)

Mountain Outfitters outdoor gear shop shut down last fall, after almost 40 years in business.

Owner Doug Bittinger said it was “one of the most difficult decisions” he and partner Cindy Reese ever made. After the best year ever in 2020, when the pandemic drove hordes of people into the outdoors and into outdoor gear shops, an economic storm led to the worst years ever for the Breckenridge gear shop.

“It all goes back to housing,” said Bittinger, who bought the store with Reese in 2012.

The explosion of home prices during the pandemic drove away his workers, who could not afford to remain in Breckenridge as new owners took over properties, he said. He was short-staffed and paying the employees he could find 75% more than 2019 wages. Property taxes tripled as the value of the building he and Reese owned soared.

And then, around December 2022, people stopped shopping.

“We were a locals’ shop and when locals lost their housing, we lost our core customers,” said the 59-year-old Bittinger, who now lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with Reese, where they “spend a lot of time riding our bikes.”

Bittinger was among many outdoor shop owners who endured a rough 2023. After a record surge of new outdoor participants fueled unprecedented growth in outdoor gear sales in 2021 and 2022, the outdoor retail industry is losing steam.

Sales of outdoor gear, apparel and accessories fell 3% to $27.5 billion in 2023 compared with 2022, with chain stores, e-retailers and independent shop owners all posting declines. Sales at independent stores fell 10% to $4.2 billion in 2023.

At least half of the nation’s independent stores – the main street ski and paddle shops like Mountain Outfitters that cater to core outdoor participants – were down “way more than 10%” in 2023, said Kelly Davis at the Outdoor Industry Association.

Davis’ annual retail sales trend report for OIA landed this week, revealing an expected flattening after frothy post-pandemic years, when “the whole world went out and bought something for outdoor activities,” she said.

The outdoor industry sold 6% fewer items in 2023 compared with 2022. Core outdoor people – people who ski, climb, pedal, paddle, fish and run through the woods more than 50 times a year – didn’t buy as much. But the newcomers, the people who came to the outdoors during the pandemic, are still buying.

The new consumers – as many as 15 million Americans since 2020 – participate casually in the outdoors with less frequency. And they are buying things differently, fueling, for example, record sales for insulated mugs, up 84% to $630 million in sales in 2023; men’s and women’s casual pants, $527 million in sales; and road running shoes, $2.3 billion.

While the overall spending on outdoor products fell in 2023, Davis said participation remains strong. For years, the outdoor industry languished with a mere 50% of Americans older than age 6 actively participating in outdoor activities. The pandemic changed that and by 2022, participation reached a record 55.1%.

Davis is still crunching the numbers on Americans getting outside in 2023, but she said it looks like participation will grow by at least another couple of percentage points.

But that growth is being driven by new arrivals. The number of every-weekend outdoor warriors is flat. There are 91 million core outdoor consumers in America today, a number that has not changed since 2007. That poses a challenge for outdoor gear-makers and shops that rely heavily on people who like to buy new kayaks, skis and bikes.

“So if you are focusing on core, you are not growing your consumer base for the last 15 years,” Davis said.

Davis said the industry needs to embrace the millions of freshly minted outdoor enthusiasts who are diverse, young and different from the buyers who have sustained outdoor businesses for decades.

“They are absolutely going to change our market,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how the industry can get to know these new consumers a little bit better and we can understand how they are participating in the outdoors and what their needs are.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

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